Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.


Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

12 thoughts on “Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

  1. My personal theory is that human beings like to tell stories, and stories about people with special powers are exciting. And since the idea of wearing a watch that lets you turn into different kind of aliens would have been a bit anachronistic, we get people tossing thunderbolts, or throwing their spears through boulders, or stealing the secret of fire and then carelessly losing it.

  2. I’m afraid that reading your first sentence immediately made me flash on this:

    Oddly, as I was making the bed this morning I was mulling this idea that gods were invented to explain natural phenomena that were otherwise opaque. It seems a little ridiculous. One obvious thing about indigenous cultures who live close to the earth and its vagaries is that they understand a great deal about natural sequence, cause and effect, and weather cycles than “civilized” people. So the whole “gods explain thunder” notion reeks of projection.

    I’m intrigued by the Julian Jaynes hypothesis, which is that early in human evolution, thought actually was experienced as “voices” in the head (you can still hear yourself thinking in words if you pay attention), and those voices were attributed to external influences. It has at least got a bit of contemporary evidence going for it (in the form of data concerning severely stressed people who revert to this kind of subjective experience).

  3. Hey, Paul … I enjoyed this post and your links. I tend to think along the lines of Tylor on this subject. One thing for sure, we’ll never know definitely. And I’ve read some Newberg. I don’t see our supposed “hardwiring” for religious belief as necessarily being opposed to what Tylor proposed, but possibly complimentary. Nor do I think we will outgrow this religious impulse just because of the advance of knowledge. I suspect that is because in our childhood, long before we start learning the nuts and bolts of how the universe works, we tend to think of it as somewhat enchanted. Just my two cents.

  4. You seem to be so well read on the subject, that I fear my own theory will be dull, or covered by some other source, but here it is as brief as possible on this deep topic:

    First there were, in a sense, infinite unidentified gods in the form of superstitions. Our ancestors learned superstitions right along side real knowledge with life experience, thanks to Causal Reasoning. Superstitions ruled in cases which were unusual, especially when there was an apparently harsh negative effect, like starting to pass a kidney stone the same day a new type of bug was eaten. Ergo, those bugs are bad to eat.

    In the same way, superstitions crept into event with a larger blast radius so to speak, like weather. A particularly harsh storm, such as a hail storm, would have caused the ageless question to be thought; “Why is this happening to me?” Any unusual occurrence which was coincident with that day might be blamed, like throwing a strange red rock into a pond only ten minutes prior to when the storm clouds started to roll in.

    Similar superstitions would also develop due to unusual positive experiences. If you had great trouble finding animals to eat, but happened to stumble on a den of wild animals after having burnt some new type of sticks you just found, then you might see a connection.

    Complex language plays an essential co-starring role. We had to be able to share our theories and superstitions regarding the unusual events which occurred, which is presumably why we have not seen monkeys build idols.

    It’s hard to know when the Theory of Mind comes into play. It could have come at this base level as an answer to “why is it that when I do this, that seems to happen? Why does that causal relationship exist?”

    However, it may a level above that. For example, what if Bob discovered that when he yelped loud three times at the rising sun, the locusts appeared to skip over his crops? What if Bob then shared this knowledge with the group? Then the next day, Sam decides to try shouting at the sun, but still ends up having to fend off several locusts which fly in to munch on his crops. Suddenly there is something special about Bob. Why did it work for Bob and not Sam? Maybe only Bob has the right kind of yelp, or maybe the thing which controls the locusts favors Bob.

    So Bob becomes the expert. Everybody asks Bob to yodel at the sun in front of their crops every morning, and the residents see no more locusts (thanks to a strong wind driving the locusts in another direction, but they don’t know that). In thanks, the people do things for Bob, or perhaps give him some of their harvest, somewhat establishing the model for priests. The next year of yodeling comes with no locusts, but the year after that the swarm does come. Everybody is wondering why Bob’s yelping didn’t help, and perhaps are angry Bob.

    On the conspirator’s side, in desperation to protect himself and keep his income of favors, perhaps Bob seizes on the loosely held belief that something favors Bob, and so Bob personifies that something into a god. Bob says that this force, this god has revealed to him that he is unhappy about [insert unusual or distasteful occurrence here].

    On the honest prophet’s side, perhaps Bob remembers how he stole some fruit from a field while yodeling, and ties in the loosely held belief that something had favored Bob. So Bob personifies that something into a god and realizes that he did something which lost that favor. Bob says that this force, this god has revealed to him that he is unhappy about Bob stealing fruit, but he will work to become favored again to protect their village.

    That’s the magic. Personification. Once personified, it has wills and desires, pleasures and distastes.

    Bob may have known about locusts, and Fred learned about storms, and Roger discovered about the volcanoes, and Steve figured out about some type of illness. Etc. From that, the domestic gods of polytheism evolved, presumably as these experts/priests became greedier, or just more self-deluded.

    Because the gods were personified, they could be just as fickle as humans. That made them all the more real, as there were then definite reasons why the gods were not always reliable in much the same way that mother nature is not always reliable.

  5. The gods were invented as a propaganda tool to be use against the ignorant masses for control. That’s why “the gods” have not gone away. The concept is still a desirable tool, a tool used by those needing control. Plus, those unable or unwilling to change find it easier to believe. Spewing accepted doctrine, the path of least resistance, is easier than struggling against the status quo. Pet peeve: I really hate people that can not clean up after themselves. Beyond it being inconsiderate and exhibiting poor hygiene, they reveal their pathological self-conceit.

  6. Did man invent the gods or does man simply vaguely remembers being descended from a super being thus being a facet of God? Could we collectively be God?
    I resent all those theories that would make us a simple conglomerate of cells interacting chemically or electronically thus making us totally unaccountable for our actions; my chemistry made me do it.

  7. I agree with Tim. The idea of a god was created so someone could control someone else and as time marched on, the elite invented religion to control the masses who really still don’t do such a good job of thinking for themselves and thus, are gullible to the suggestion of God.

  8. Pingback: Science News: Religion Destroys the Brain « The Age of Blasphemy

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